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  • The Aesthetics of Disturbance: Anti-Art in Avant-Garde Drama
  • Meiling Cheng
The Aesthetics of Disturbance: Anti-Art in Avant-Garde Drama. By David Graver. Theater: Theory/Text/Performance Series. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1995; pp. xi + 253. $39.50 cloth.

The ease with which David Graver crosses and expands disciplinary boundaries indicates both the depth of his sensibility and the sophistication of his scholarship. His inquiry seeks to uncover “anti-art” components, compositional strategies associated with visual and performance arts, in the early twentieth century avant-garde drama. In his study of the (anti)artistic, Graver does not simply apply the analytical tactics developed in the visual arts discipline as analogies; instead, he treats selected avant-garde dramas as two-dimensional anti-art objects. While he scarcely ignores the linguistic necessities required by a literary medium, Graver nevertheless approaches the anti-art dramatic texts [End Page 401] as conflated visual and semiotic sites, valued more for their plastic affectability than for their discursivity, more for their dense, ambiguous, and sensuous presence than for their mimetic abilities.

Graver lays open how, for the anti-art avant-garde, montage allows the visual logic of juxtaposition to coexist with, and therefore reinforce, the discursive logic of thematic argument. He proclaims at the outset that his goal is “to understand the opacities and contentions of the avant-garde” through both a detailed reading of the cryptic dramas produced by Oskar Kokoschka, Gottfried Benn, Raymond Roussel, Roger Vitrac, and Wyndham Lewis, and “a broader survey of the aesthetic contexts” in which they work (2). What he examines as the “aesthetic contexts” emerge as the turbulent, wildly textured, yet somehow consistent ground upon which the disparate figures—Kokoschka, Benn, Roussel, Vitrac, Lewis—are raggedly assembled, their heterogeneous domains overlaying one another. Despite the explosive energy released from such a clashing union, Graver succeeds in pursuing his thematic avatar—the aesthetic formations of the “avant-garde” as a transforming concept and attitude—through its every descent into the mundi solitaire of the five playwrights. As the author perceives and carefully analyzes the heteromorphous constructive devices which, in each playwright’s case, speak to the subject of anti-art, the book’s resolutely individualistic units amount to making a shared statement: the anti-art forms of the avant-garde command a range of aesthetic principles and theoretical claims more complex and even more extreme than their interests in shock, nihilism, and destruction.

Opening with a question concerning the implications of avant-garde, whether it connotes “approbation or opprobrium” (1), Graver launches into a semantic and historical project in his first chapter. He approaches the idea of avant-garde from its initial articulation by Rodrique in 1825, through its various incarnations via the subsequent movements, to its last productive phase about a decade before World War II, incorporating the anti-art gestures propagated by the dissident extremes of dada and surrealist manifestoes. He locates specifically the origin of anti-art in the dada pronouncements that “Dada subsumes life unmodified into art”; and that “Dada is against Dada” (7). Thus, in protest against the bourgeois institution of art, anti-art rejects the traditional reverence for order, intelligibility, and success, engages in the decentering experience of crisis and failure, challenges the autonomy of art in order to eliminate the border between art and life, and violates discursive consistency “by a playful interest in the immediate sensual pleasure of insincere poses and bald-faced contradictions” (10).

While Graver proffers a historicized catalogue of the anti-aesthetic stances and methods, he also navigates around the theoretical quagmires of Calinescu, Bürger, and Oehler to illustrate the ultimate elusiveness of the term anti-art. Anti-art arises from a “tradition” itself characterized by opposing trends and sometimes muddled conceptualizations: the avant-garde. He proceeds to affirm, however, that anti-art is “not a rejection of art but, rather, an attempt to expand the domain of art in novel ways” (10). This affirmation nonetheless points to the limit of Graver’s anti-art notions: his definitions are contingent upon his restrictive definition of “art” as a guarded possession of the bourgeois institution, which endorses and stabilizes the basic assumptions...

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pp. 401-403
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